Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tying Small Flies: Tips for the Beginner

cp put up a great tutorial for a simple, small emerger yesterday, so naturally, I had to pick up a pack of #20 curved hooks on my way home and give it a try. While tying flies at this size isn't for the faint of heart, with some sensible thread and material management, it's a fairly straightforward process.

cp's fly fishing and fly tying: BWO Biot Emerger Tutorial

This emerger really stands out to me from so many other patterns designed for hooks of this size in that it really gets the most out of all aspects of the tie. That's not to say that a fly like the Zebra Midge won't catch fish (it certainly will), but cp's fly really manages to get a surprising amount of detail out of a relatively simple tie.

My advice concerning hook size for any beginner is to start large and work your way to smaller hooks, with any new technique. Learning to tie a parachute? Start with a big fly, maybe a #12 March Brown, then work your way down to the #18 and 20 BWOs once you've got the technique figured out. Eventually, however, you will get to that point, and its important that you understand what aspects of tying small flies are the same as those of tying big ones and what aspects are different.

While I'm far from a pro, I tie and fish small flies through much of mid-to-late summer here in Pennsylvania, mostly dries, but a few subsurface patterns as well.  I've found that my small flies look (and fish) better by making certain changes in my tying style to suit the smaller hook.

For the purposes of this article, when I say small flies, I'm talking about flies from #18 on down to #24 or so.  For my fishing, #16 is used too often for me to consider it an especially small fly, and the reason I stop at #24 is because I really don't fish anything much smaller than that with any sort of regularity.  So just understand that what I call a "small fly" is completely subjective, and may well be completely different than someone else's idea.  I do, however, think that most fly fishermen would agree that you could safely consider a fly small once you get down into the 20s.

That said, I feel that there's three aspects of tying that you really need to pay attention to with the small flies: thread, materials, and procedure.


As a beginner, this may be something you haven't really worried too much about until now, but the fact is, you simply don't have the room to use 3/0 on a #20.  These small hooks have a finite amount of shank space, and you need to be able to get everything attached to it...with room for a whip finish.

By this point in your tying, you should know that not all threads are created equal, both in terms of weight and structure.  You may have developed a preference for Uni, UTC, or Danville's Flat Waxed.  Regardless of your preference, you need to use the lightest thread you can when tying these small patterns.  For my tying, I use Uni 8/0 and UTC 70 denier.  I use these for most of my tying anyway, so it's not such a big transition for me, but many guys tie with 6/0 as their go-to thread, so its important to develop a somewhat lighter touch to avoid breaks.

Going hand in hand with the lighter thread and lighter touch is to trust your thread.  Don't think that just because you've dropped from 140 denier to 70 that you've got to use twice as many wraps.  That defeats the purpose of using the smaller thread.  Just downsize, and tie normally.


This isn't such a huge issue if you're only reproducing established patterns, but it becomes a significant factor when you're inventing your own.  Different materials have different thicknesses, textures, and properties.  No big news, you know this.  You might be a beginner, but you aren't clueless.  That's good, because the knowledge of materials you've gained thus far will help you decide what materials to include in that new nano-emerger you're inventing.

This comes into play more for natural materials than synthetics.  You can trim krystal flash as short as you like, you can thin down your antron yarn to just a few fibers.  What you cant do is trim down that partridge hackle to a size #24 and expect it to have the motion of a full feather.  To tie effective flies at this size, you should incorporate three approaches to dealing with materials: use materials that can be trimmed to size with no reduction in their effectiveness (usually synthetics), tie in materials in a way that lets you control size without trimming, or ignore standard sizing conventions.

Admittedly that last one has its limits, but let's be reasonable...if your soft hackle extends past the point of the hook, even past the back of the bend...we're talking minute fractions of an inch.  It really, truly isn't the end of the world.

As far as tying method, this consists of knowing your materials and what you can and can't do with them.  For example, I like a mallard flank fiber tail on emergers.  These fibers have a natural taper, and look really bad if you just tie in and trim to length.  Obviously, you just want to tie it so that only the tips extend out, but on the scale of a #20 hook, this is a tricky proposition.  Instead, try making a few soft loops around your fibers, then adjusting them to the proper length by pulling on the butts, then cinch down with a tight wrap or two, then trim the butt ends.

For a good idea of materials that perform well in small flies, the best thing to do is to look at recipes for other small patterns.  Things like thread bodies, mono, biots, krystal flash, antron, tiny bits of foam, and CDC are all popular choices.


While closely related to thread and materials, there are a few subtle changes that you can make to your approach that may make life easier.  With respect to thread, make every wrap count.  By this, I mean each turn of your thread should have a purpose other than making the wrap before really secure.  Use only one or two wraps to tie in a new material.  If your wrapping technique is adequate, this is all you need, no matter the thread weight.  Don't make 5 wraps where 3 will do.

Another tip for thread, specifically unbonded thread like UTC is to periodically untwist your thread.  Flat thread will lay much flatter than when the filaments are tightly twisted.  Flatter thread means less bulk.

Get as much use out of every wrap that you can (seeing a trend here?).  If you need to tie in a tail, rib, and body at the bend, do it all at once.  2-3 wraps to tie in 2-3 materials is great thread economics.  2-3 wraps each for an antron tail, wire rib, and lace body means 6-9 wraps of fly-ruining bulk.

Likewise, when you're tying off your abdomen and moving into the thorax, hold your abdomen material with 2 wraps, then prepare your thorax, whether its a single strand of peacock herl, or a thin skin case, hackle, and  a floss base.  Get these materials stacked in the order you'll need them then place them along the shank.  Next, unwrap one of those 2 holding wraps, and tie in all of your thorax materials at once with 2-3 wraps.  All in all, you've just used 3-4 wraps to tie off your abdomen and start your thorax, as opposed to 2-3 for the abdomen, 2-3 for the case, and 2-3 for each thorax material.

Glue is your friend...if you know how to use it.  The key word here is sparingly.  A well-used drop of CA glue here and there can make a fly nearly indestructible, but in the wrong place it can make your fly worthless.  Always use a bodkin to apply glue to a small fly.  One good place to use it is to use your bodkin to spread a single drop all over the thread base of your abdomen, then wrap your body material over it, effectively cementing it into place.

Leave yourself a handle.  So you only need 3/4" of krystal flash for your body...instead of cutting just that much and trying to hold and wrap it using hackle pliers, why not just use the entire 6-8" strand, wrap comfortably with your hands, then trim off after you tie it down?  If you're like me, you'll be tying at least 6 of the pattern anyway, so you wont waste much of that strand, and what you do throw away is, to me, well worth the aggravation avoided.  If you're especially frugal, you probably have a "spare parts" bin on your desk somewhere that you can throw the spare flash into for possible future use.

Use a small whip-finish or half-hitch.  These aren't pike streamers, you don't have to tie them down like you're binding the great Cthulu to the ocean floor.  Give it a loop or two and be done with it.  Add a microscopic speck of head cement if it'll help you sleep at night, but no ten-wrap whip finishes.


Well, that's about all I can think of right now.  I know several tiers with more experience and talent than me read this blog, so if you've got any tips to add, please comment!


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